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Completing Dahl: Memories with Food at Gipsy House

This year I’m blogging once a month about finishing reading everything Roald Dahl wrote. Full disclosure: I’m not a Dahl scholar, just a humble fan of his work. This is a lay endeavor, perhaps not even all that fascinating to others. We’ll see. By the end, I hope to be able to say “I’ve read everything written by Roald Dahl!” or at least “I’ve read everything Roald Dahl wrote save for that one play I can’t seem to find a script for.” Something like that.

Memories with Food at Gipsy House
AKA Roald Dahl’s Kitchen Nightmares

Memories with FoodAfter a few months of feeling… less than enthralled by my selections for this project, Memories with Food at Gipsy House ended up being completely delightful. Thank goodness, right?

Co-authored by Dahl and his wife Felicity, Memories with Food at Gipsy House is just what it says on the package: it’s a bunch of stories about eating delicious meals, plus recipes. Sometimes the recipes are from the stories, sometimes not. It’s an interesting endeavor, peppered with anecdotes by his wife and children and housekeepers and friends about various meals eaten or elusive ingredients procured or the experience of cooking a specific dish.

During Dahl’s sections, his storytelling style reminded me strongly of one of my favorite of his books, My Year. Both have that quality of a beloved uncle rambling at you from his favorite chair by the fire, around 10 PM when he’s had a drop in and should be tottering off to bed but everyone’s begging him for just one more story.

Some of the anecdotes will be familiar to those who have read many of his other works—the Norway stories either repeat or expand on events detailed in Boy, for example, and Piggy the Cook from Going Solo also appears. Not that I minded. Again, that spell of the beloved uncle makes everything enjoyable even when it’s not entirely fresh.

Other anecdotes were a fascinating window into the man who wrote these books that I love so very much. For example, he reminisces about Prestat of Piccadilly, whose chocolates play a substantial role in My Uncle Oswald. The section at the end on wine will enthrall anyone who has read “Taste” (the very first grown-up story of Dahl’s I ever encountered, when my father read it to me) and is also strikingly reminiscent of an aside in Oswald about claret. He as well gives an explanation of why he came to write his unusual and gruesome story “Pig,” which for those of you who haven’t read it is, for lack of a better term, “vegetarian horror,” similar in tone to something like Ravenous or maybe Hannibal. Here is what he has to say on the matter:

Now and again, most of us are faced with the problem of boiling our own live lobsters, and because this caused me so much anguish and guilty, I made a study of all the inhuman things that people do to animals in order to eat them. Then I wrote a story about it (Pig). We all know about the foie gras geese and the treatment of calves for veal production (I won’t eat either). And I found a recipe from Florida that said, “surprise the terrapin by dripping it into boiling water…” But lobsters are what will concern most of us from time to time.

I’ll stop the quote here, as his suggestions for humanely boiling lobsters are a bit out of date (I think the thing to do is bung them in the freezer for a while to put them to sleep, but I’m no authority).

I think what I was most impressed by in Memories with Food at Gipsy House was how, despite being mostly recipes and anecdotes about cooking, there is such joy, such happiness and hope but also pathos and sadness and love. Several recipes for lamb is accompanied by a funny story from Roald Dahl’s daughter about buying lambs without permission when she was 10 years old and taking them across London in a taxi. Later in the book, a dish of mussels appears alongside the image of a letter from the woman who developed it. She reports that she is doing well with her cancer treatments and hopes to live another few months or maybe a year. We know from Felicity’s comment she died several days later. Yet another tale from Felicity tells of how Dahl surprised a little boy with an autographed copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when he was unable to wait in line for a signed book one morning — apparently, Dahl had been eating delicious cookies during all this, and that recipe is included with the story.

Beyond being enjoyable for Dahl enthusiasts, anyone who enjoys reading about English cooking or country life will likely find something fascinating in Memories with Food at Gipsy House. As someone who nigh-religiously tuned in every week to Two Fat Ladies when it first came to the states, I was completely engrossed.

Were you, Molly?” Some of you may ask. “We know you - you’re a filthy vegetarian. Did you really read all these recipes for Soft Herring Roe Soufflé and Casseroled Ptarmigan and Jugged Hare and Beef and Walnut Pie? Actually, don’t you even avoid eggs and dairy? Did you really enjoy reading about making Jam Omlette and how apparently they served lemonade at Gipsy House with an egg beaten into it?”

The answer is yes. I love reading cooking stories, even if I don’t see myself using the actual recipes. And even though, yes, “Liccy’s Lemonade” has an egg in, I found myself fascinated by why — apparently Roald Dahl had a stomach operation and this was his wife’s way of getting an egg into him afterwards without the thought of it distressing him.

Thus, to prove that I did read and did enjoy this carnivore’s compendium, I resolved about halfway through reading the book to make a dinner from Memories with Food at Gipsy House. Surely there would be some recipes I could use.

In the end, I resolved to make “Gipsy House Salad”, which seemed simple enough, and “Theo’s Peanut Roast” a sort of Seventh-day Adventist-style dinner loaf which every vegetarian knows how to wing. For dessert I resolved to make a dairy-free version of Krokaan Ice Cream—which, if that seems an odd choice for a vegan, consider that I first read a description of this ice cream in Boy when I was very small, and thought it sounded delicious. Seeing an actual run-down of how to make it was irresistible, plus I make a killer dairy-free vanilla base.

And really, the test of any cookbook is how well the recipes turn out, right?

Oh, God.

My experience with the ice cream began early in the day. It’s hot as blazes here in Boulder, so I knew if I wanted to get the ice cream to freeze I needed to start early. Around 7:45 AM I begin on the krokaan—almond toffee, for those who don’t know. I put Earth Balance, a butter substitute, in my pan, and sugar, and almonds. I start stirring, envisioning a future where I make this for a dinner party full of literary folks, bringing it out and at the exclamations of delight from my guests, saying casually, “Oh, it’s actually Roald Dahl’s favorite ice cream recipe.”

That’s when I notice the sugar has seized without coating the almonds, and is turning into a lumpy, disgusting mess.

I do what I can, but it is ruined. I dump it all in the garbage.

I try again, to equally poor results. There does not seem to be enough liquid/fat to melt the sugar. I add more butter to this batch. It helps! Then the sugar seizes, and the butter floats to the top, leaving behind a lump of sugar so solid you could brain an ox with it (and then, I suppose, make Dahl’s ox-tail soup). It is also dumped in the trash.

I finally succeed in making a toffee-ish substance on the third try, which then seizes when I put in the almonds. It’s still wet enough to spread so I pour it on the greased paper I have waiting. It immediately goes grainy. I am sweating and cussing by this point. I try a final time, and stir it forever, and it’s looking good… but it will not go brown. I stir and wait and stir and wait… I am now late for an appointment so I say screw it, pour out the last of the pale toffee on another sheet of greased paper… where it goes grainy again. I whip up my ice cream base and go on my way greasy-faced and, with a sugar burn on my arm and annoyed feelings in my heart. I feel less like Roald Dahl making fabulous food for all and sundry and more like Bridget Jones.

Ice cream

That evening, I churn the ice cream, adding some of the grainy “toffee” and it is actually glorious even if the krokaan isn’t quite what it should be. Good. Now to make up the peanut loaf.

I am immediately doubtful when I look at this recipe a second time. Maybe it’s my failure with the krokaan, but I start wondering things like… how large is a “large tomato” to Roald Dahl? What about a “small dessert apple”? I live in America, land of Giant Irradiated Produce, after all. I do my best to approximate. It seems like a lot of vegetable matter, but when cooked up it smells delicious. I throw it in the oven and hope for the best.

After an hour I let the loaf cool and decant it, and it mostly keeps its shape, even! This is good. After all, the picture in the book shows it crumbling, and if the original chef plus a food photographer can’t get something to look right…

The salad is the least of my worries, so I save making up the dressing while I wait for the peanut loaf to cool. It is just a balsamic vinaigrette over lettuces with toasted seeds, after all. Then I take another look…

Step 2: Make the vinaigrette by combining ingredients in the usual way and to your taste.

Huh? I look at the directions. There are no quantities. Just that I should use “good quality” olive oil, and some vinegar, and some mustard, with a pinch of sugar. With a sigh I just throw everything in a jar, shake until the mustard emulsifies the oil and vinegar.

This actually works. And it is delicious when I taste it, tangy and olive-oil-y.

So after approximately five hours of labor, I have crumbling loaf, salad, and ice cream. I am somewhat annoyed and mildly burned. This displeases me — I am actually an excellent cook, and am not used to things going… weirdly. I grudgingly take a few pictures because it’s 2014 and that’s what you do, and tell my husband to dig in. We decide against wine, even though Dahl insists all meals should be served with wine. It’s approximately 90 degrees in my house at 8:30 at night (we’re experiencing a bit of a heat wave) and the thought of wine makes me ill.

He takes a bite of salad.

“Oh my god, this is delicious,” he says, eyes going wide. “The dressing is fantastic.”

He spears a portion of loaf.

“Please make this again!” he says through a mouthful. At this point, I feel less ambivalent about tasting my creations. He’s right. The loaf may look questionable, but it tastes great, and the salad dressing is really, really tasty.

Loaf and salad

Afterward, he eats two giant bowls of ice cream.

“It’s supposed to be crunchy,” I mutter, when he compliments the sugary almonds.

“Who cares?”

Fair enough.

So, that was my adventure of cooking from Roald Dahl’s cookbook. Not entirely successful, but not as much of a disaster as I feared! Memories with food at my house. Thanks, Mr. Dahl.

Oh, and if any of you are intrigued by the idea of dairy-free ice cream, here’s my recipe for rich, creamy, foolproof vanilla.

Dairy-Free Vanilla Ice Cream

  • 4 c. soya creamer (not soya milk — you need more fat!)
  • ½ c. raw cashews, soaked overnight or in hot water for 2+ hours
  • ¾ c. sugar
  • 1 tb. corn syrup
  • 1 vanilla bean

Blend the soaked cashews with ½ c water and ½ cup of your soya creamer until there are no cashew lumps and all you have is a rich creamy solution. Add to the rest of the creamer, and stir gently over medium heat with the sugar and corn syrup. When the sugar is dissolved, scrape a vanilla bean into the mixture and throw in the pod as well. Let it chill completely in your refrigerator. Then take out about a third of the chilled mixture and stick it in your freezer for an hour. Add this back into the cold mixture to chill it further, pluck out the vanilla pod, and churn according to your ice cream maker’s manufacturer’s instructions. It’s really good.

Next month: Short stories of some sort!

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